The Russia collusion probe. The Stormy Daniels allegations. Escalating tension with Moscow.
The tempests that have buffeted the White House for months merged into a maelstrom this week and threatened to engulf President Donald Trump, who on Wednesday railed against members of the Justice Department by name and used Twitter to threaten military strikes in Syria and taunt a nuclear-armed power.
While alarmed aides and allies worried that Trump was the angriest he’d ever been, the president saw conspiracies in the challenges facing his administration and hinted at more chaos. And as Trump’s party was rocked by upheaval on Capitol Hill, White House staffers explored whether he has the legal authority to fire the men leading the investigation into his administration and, as underscored by the seizure of documents from his private lawyer, his business and personal life.
Trump pushed back Thursday on reports of disarray, insisted he did not consider firing special counsel Robert Mueller in December. The president denied a report in The New York Times, saying: “If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him. Just more Fake News from a biased newspaper!”
If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him. Just more Fake News from a biased newspaper!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2018
The Times reported that in early December, Trump was furious over reports about a new round of subpoenas from Muller’s office and told advisers the investigation needed to be ended.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!”
That message followed another provocative tweet, in which Trump laced into Russia for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government is accused of launching an apparent chemical attack Saturday on its own people. Disregarding his own insistence that he would never tip his hand to military strategy, he seemed to suggest that he would launch airstrikes.
“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!'” Trump wrote. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
The president’s renewed public anger at special counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein was prompted by the FBI raid on his longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen, who acknowledged paying $130,000 to Daniels, a porn actress, to buy her silence about an alleged affair with Trump. Trump has warned that an investigation into his business would cross “a red line” and could lead him to fire Mueller, despite strong pushback from a number of aides and Republicans in Congress.
“It worries me because I realize how much he feels personally cheated and how much it feels like it’s a personal witch hunt. And he’s not the kind of guy that takes that lying down. He fights back,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an informal Trump adviser. “I think Trump doesn’t know how to deal with it and is very frustrated by it, thinks it’s totally unfair. And that’s what you’re seeing.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made clear Wednesday that Trump was wary of investigatory overreach, saying, “He has a very deep concern about the direction that the special counsel and other investigations have taken.”
Although the president declared that his White House was “calm and calculated,” aides said decisions happen fast and with even less warning than usual when Trump feels backed into a corner. Trump has continued to seethe about Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Russia probe. And a number of those close to Trump say they worry about his reaction — and the West Wing’s lack of planning — to yet another storm on the horizon: the release of former FBI director James Comey’s new book.
The advertisements for the interviews have begun blanketing cable news, leading Trump to angrily surmise that Comey was “going to lie” and try to “make money” by tarnishing the president’s reputation, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking but not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.
The January publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury caught the White House off guard, and the critiques leveled by former chief strategist Steve Bannon and other ex-officials left Trump enraged. Although Comey’s book comes as no surprise, the White House as of Wednesday had no formal plan to respond to it, instead likely opting to let the Republican National Committee and outside surrogates handle most of the pushback.
Trump’s decision to fire Comey was the product of weeks of discussion among his senior-most staff. A similar debate is unlikely to play out over the potential dismissal of Mueller or Rosenstein — not least in part because those deliberations became a subject of Mueller’s investigation of potential obstruction of justice.
But Trump, too, has grown more comfortable making decisions without seeking the counsel of his staff. That’s what happened when he fired national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Although both decisions had been expected for months, Trump acted first and left it to his staff to pick up the pieces.
While a number of allies believe Trump’s talk on Mueller and Rosenstein was largely venting, they acknowledged that Trump is increasingly unpredictable. White House lawyers have been considering Trump’s authority to circumvent Department of Justice regulations and unilaterally fire Mueller. Trump could also direct Rosenstein or a potential successor to take action against Mueller.
Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump ally, said he did not expect a purge. “The president is not talking about firing Mueller. I’ve had conversations with the president, and he’s not talking about it,” Meadows said.
Bipartisan legislation to protect the special counsel was introduced Wednesday, but its fate was uncertain.
White House aides also worried about the surprise announcement from House Speaker Paul Ryan that he will leave Congress at the end of the year. The move was interpreted by some in Trump’s orbit as an acknowledgement of the rising likelihood that Democrats could gain control of the House this fall, imperiling the president’s agenda and potentially sparking talk of impeachment.